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Given its abysmal box office receipts – despite the popularity of the book upon which it is based – it appears “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” may not have been a good title for a movie. Somebody in the marketing department goofed on that call.

And given the preposterousness of recasting America’s 16th president as a killer of blood-suckers, it would be easy to presume “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a laughably bad movie.

But instead, it appears most of America’s ticket buyers goofed on that call, too.

Yes, I’ll do my best to say it straight-faced, no matter how ridiculous it sounds: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is curiously one of the most entertaining and values-affirming films of the summer.

Seriously.

But how did a movie like this – with its bizarre premise – get made in the first place?

Why is America – from the fantastic success of “Twilight” to transforming Lincoln into Abraham Van Helsing – so fascinated with vampires?

A theologian might argue that our culture has used the bludgeons of “science” and “separation of church and state” to drive all traces of God from schools and society. Without the mystery and awe of the divine, our young people are growing up with an unfulfilled longing for something more than the natural world, a desire to believe they are part of something greater, and so they turn to fantastical tales of the supernatural.

A secular sociologist might contend that the progress of knowledge has given mankind a mastery over nearly every subject, from the microscopic workings of life to the vast reaches of the universe. The last, great unknown country, he might argue, is what happens after we die, making tales of the “undead” particularly intriguing.

Regardless of which philosopher is more on target, this vampire film is much less about fangs in the night than it is about the coming-of-age story of its protagonist, Mr. Lincoln himself, and the tale of how he grew from a boy bent on vengeance to a man of character to the stuff of legend.

This is not the campy, farcical romp through history its title might suggest – and as many reviewers have assumed, much to their disappointment in the movie – but an honest and serious story about its lead character, who just so happens to fight vampires … and, one day, become president.

OK, clearly we’re not talking about the real Abraham Lincoln, but about this obviously fictionalized version of him. Still, even if the premise is a lark, the story is worth considering.

The movie’s central theme is stated plainly in its opening monologue: “History prefers legends to men. It prefers nobility to brutality, soaring speeches to quiet deeds. History remembers the battle, but forgets the blood. However history remembers me before I was a president, it shall only remember a fraction of the truth … for I shall always think of myself as a man who struggled against the darkness.”

And that’s what “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is about: struggling to do right against the forces of darkness, wherever they may lie.

In the film’s first act, the boy Lincoln, who witnesses his mother killed by a vampire, struggles against the darkness within – his desire for vengeance.

In a pivotal scene, the man who would train Lincoln to kill vampires teaches him an important lesson by asking him to muster all his hate and use it to fell a tree with a single blow of his ax. But for all his rage, Lincoln fails.

Not until the master drives Lincoln through the hate to discover the real reason he wants to kill vampires can Lincoln cut down the tree.

“Real power comes not from hate,” the master teaches him, “but from truth.”

In the film’s second act, Lincoln struggles against the darkness without, a mission to stop vampires from taking over the nation, wielding a silver-lined ax to slay them at night. But the battle is long and weary and ultimately discouraging.

At a key moment, Lincoln is challenged, “You wouldn’t back away from what’s righteous just because it’s hard?”

“My father said never back down from where you plant your feet,” Mary Todd tells Lincoln. “The question is where to plant your feet.”

This leads to the film’s third act, where Lincoln battles a darkness infecting his country – slavery.

Of course, while Lincoln is off to Washington, battling for the soul of the nation, the vampires come back to seek revenge on their archenemy, setting up the film’s suspend-all-disbelief action finale.

Well-acted, surprisingly well-written, engaging in 3-D and far more about living as a man of honor in dark times than it is about devils and demons, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a movie that doesn’t deserve the derision its title invites and frankly, deserves better success at the box office than it has enjoyed.

Editor’s note: A quick word about the history portrayed in the film. Clearly, some revision of Lincoln’s story was necessary to make this movie work. While many details are preserved accurately (such as Mary Todd’s relationship with Stephen Douglas before marrying his debate opponent, Lincoln), other details are obviously invented and swept aside to explain Lincoln’s “nocturnal” habits. Some have expressed concern this film demonizes the South, but I didn’t see it. The alliance of the vampires with the South is portrayed as a manipulative plot by the vampires and a desperation move by one human leader, not representative of the South’s “villainy” as a whole.

Content advisory:

  • “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” contains six profanities and obscenities.
  • The film contains some nudity and sexuality, including a quick shot of a bare-chested female murder victim. There are a couple of kisses, some bare-chested men, an interrupted scene of a potentially sexual assault in an alley and the film’s most graphic scene, in which Lincoln overhears a couple shouting, only to burst in and discover they’re having sex in a bathtub. The woman’s bare back is seen above the suds, as she’s atop her partner.
  • The movie is loaded with stylized violence, slow-motion gore and bloodshed in a number of ways. The director makes ample use of the Hershey’s syrup when Lincoln takes his ax to the vampires, spraying the floor and sets with gore. Though not as gruesome as many horror flicks can get, there’s more than enough blood to make some audiences squeamish.
  • The film has several biblical and religious references, including a quote of Genesis 17:5 on the opening shot and a later quote of 1 Corinthians 13, but surprisingly few occult references – save for the mere existence of blood-sucking, undead vampires, of course – no pentagrams, conjuring, devil worship, spitting and hissing at the cross or any of the other usual trappings of vampire films. The vampires’ aversion to silver is explained as a result of Judas betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, and the vampire leader makes a pair of sneering references to God, including a comment that men “invented gods to forgive them.”

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